Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Church of San Francesco della Vigna

by Cat Bauer

(excerpt of article published by International Herald Tribune's Italian supplement Italy Daily, July 26, 2002)

Editor's note: Save Venice, Inc., an American non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the city's monuments, contributed to this article.

The winged lion of Venice is often depicted with an open book inscribed with the words Pax tibi Marce Evangelista meus (Peace be with you, Mark, my Evangelist), an indication that the Republic was at peace, while a closed book signified war. According to tradition, an angel spoke those words to St. Mark himself when he landed at the lagoon city on a voyage from Aquilea, and foretold that Venice would be the saint's final resting place.

The site where a church once commemorated the event is now the area of San Francesco della Vigna, named after a monastery in the large sestiere of Castello. The district encompasses the entire eastern end of Venice, stretching from just behind Piazza San Marco all the way to the tip of Sant' Elena.

To explore the northern edge of Castello, begin at the Celestia vaporetto stop and pass through the stone arch, the last remnant of the gardens of the noble Sagredo family, whose crest is still visible. The Sagredo palace remains next to the arch, but the gardens were eliminated to build the modern apartment buildings in the area. Follow Calle del Cimitero as it winds to the right until reaching Campo della Confraternita.

The massive Church of San Francesco della Vigna is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi and called "della Vigna" after the vineyards left to the friars by Marco Ziani, son of well-respected Doge Pietro, in 1253. Jacopo Sansovino replaced the previous Gothic church with the current structure starting in 1534; Andrea Palladio designed the majestic facade in 1568-1572.

Over the side entrance are two 16th-century reliefs, the "Virgin" and "Announcing Angel." Upon entering the right transept, Antonio da Negroponte's "Madonna and Child Enthroned" (1460s) is a remarkable example of the International Gothic style with garlands, flowers and animals surrounding the Virgin's throne. The carved and gilded wooden High Altar (1560s) was modified in the 17th century and is flanked by sculptures of Saints Francis and Anthony.

Madonna and Child Enthroned - Photo by Mark Smith

The interior of the church is a treasure chest of important works, with chapels built by some of the most important members of Venetian nobility,, such as the Bragadin, Contarini, Dandolo, Sagredo and Grimani families; the Funeral monument of Doge Andrea Gritti (1538) is just to the left of the main altar.

The Badoer Giustinian Chapel, towards the sacristy, is considered one of the most impressive ensembles of early-Venetian Renaissance sculpture in Venice; the quality and the quantity of the marble reliefs are unsurpassed. The chapel's importance also rests on its curious status as a recycled monument on which major artists of two generations worked. The present chapel is the creation of Jacopo Sansovino in the 1530s. He cleverly reassembled carvings created at the end of the 15th century by members of the Lombardo family and their circle.

The altarpiece, finished by the workshop of Pietro Lombardo by 1500, shows members of the namesake saints of the Badoer family. The reliefs of the "Four Evangelists," "Prophets," and "Scenes in the Life of Christ" decorating the side walls of the chapel were once part of a horizontal choir screen in marble commissioned by the Badoer family for the previous Gothic church of San Francesco.

The Badoer Giustinian Chapel - photo by Ralph E. Lieberman

The choir screen was removed when the church was remodelled into its present form in 1534, and Sansovino reassembled and integrated the decorative elements of the screen to adorn the walls of the new Badoer Giustinian family chapel. Sansovino and his school carved some additional decoration to make the recycled carvings better fit the chapel; examples are the angel faces added to lengthen the marble slabs of the "Prophets." Particularly beautiful is the "Evangelist Saint John," with his eagle symbol (second from the window on the left wall), thought to be the work of Giambattista Bregno. The reliefs of the "Scenes from the Life of Christ" are strangely out of chronological order, but do match up iconographically with their respective Prophet below, i.e., the prophet Isaiah who predicted the Annunciation to the Virgin is located beneath a representation of this scene.

Near the Badoer Chapel in the left corner of the presbytery is the "Madonna of Humility," a rare early 13th-century panel painting of astounding quality by an unknown non-Venetian artist.

The splendid 15th-century cloisters can be reached through a nearby corridor, as can the sacristy, where a panel by Giovanni Bellini, "Virgin and Child, Saints and Donor" (1507) is found over the altar.

Back inside the church, another highlight is Paolo Veronese's "Madonna and Child with Catherine and St. Anthony Abbot" (1551), located in the chapel of the Giustiniani family, fourth on the left. In the foreground is a pig, bred by Antonine monks in the Middle Ages and often used as a symbol of the saint.

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